Food Marketing is Violating Children’s Rights—Low- and Middle-Income Countries are Leading the Charge to Regulate It
From TV to social media to sports stars, games, and trips to the mall, today’s children are bombarded with marketing of unhealthy foods.
Despite reams of evidence about how such food marketing harms children’s health, no country has adopted a comprehensive policy to control it, according to the WHO.
The agency is looking to change that, starting with draft guidelines designed to help countries restrict food marketing to which children are exposed.
Neena Prasad, MD, MPH, MSc, who leads the Food Policy program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, spoke with GHN about why these guidelines are needed, what a comprehensive policy would look like, and which countries are leading the way.
What do we know about the impact of food marketing on children, and why it matters?
Children are exposed to promotions for foods and drinks more than any other types of products—and the majority of promoted food and drinks are nutritionally deficient and calorie dense.
The WHO and other global health leaders identify children’s exposure to pervasive unhealthy food marketing as a major risk factor for obesity.
Worldwide, an estimated 340 million children ages 5 to 19 are now classified as overweight or obese—a tenfold increase in the past four decades that is expected to keep increasing rapidly, should current trends continue.
Low- and middle- income countries have experienced the most rapid rise in recent decades, and we know that excess weight during childhood is likely to persist into adulthood. It also increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—all of which contribute to premature death.
Why is marketing in particular such an important issue to address now?
If you look at the various policies we have in our toolbox to reduce consumption of ultra-processed products, there’s been great momentum around things like taxes on sugary drinks, labeling on packaged foods and beverages. But marketing is the one that’s probably had the least traction globally.
It is undoubtedly because it is such an important tool for the industry and the industry has a lot of power in preventing regulation.
The food industry spends billions of dollars every year to reach children with their product marketing and they lobby against policies that aim to restrict marketing.
And, the food industry is not going to spend millions of dollars fighting something that’s not effective. The fact that they are spending so much and very proactively lobby against marketing restrictions tells you pretty much everything you need to know.
The WHO’s draft guidelines note that current marketing practices are not only harmful, but violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically the right to privacy. How so?
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified as a legally binding international treaty by nearly every country in the world. It states that every child from birth to 18 years of age has an inherent right to a healthy childhood that is free from economic exploitation, discrimination, and invasions of privacy.
Food marketing practices violate these rights.
Some countries—like Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa—also specifically guarantee children’s basic rights, including the right to be properly nourished and protected against exploitation. So in many countries the rights of the child are extremely powerful and have a lot of resonance with policymakers.
What unique obstacles do digital platforms, like social media and influencers, add to these challenges?
This is a space that is really challenging to study and regulate, as it’s highly fragmented and involves many players.
Digital platforms hand industry a very powerful tool to market to children. It’s extremely sophisticated, extremely individualized. The ability to track and collect information on users is raising serious concerns around the right to privacy, which the UN Convention on the rights of children explicitly protects.
There is recognition and movement on this issue. For example, Spain is working on draft policies that look at minimizing children’s exposure to messages of all kinds of celebrities and influencers.
The WHO’s draft recommendations say that no country has a comprehensive policy for regulating food marketing to children. What would a successful comprehensive policy look like?
For one, policy should be mandatory. We see time and time again that the industry’s voluntary pledges are weak. In fact, data shows that countries with voluntary self-regulatory approaches have actually been found to air more TV advertising for unhealthy food during children’s viewing times than countries with no policy at all.
It’s also critical to get away from this framing of “child-targeted”—we know that children see so much more than what is directly targeted at them.
Policies should also be broad enough to minimize the risk of migration of marketing to other channels. For example, if you’re just regulating TV, the industry is going to move to other spaces—particularly digital spaces.
A comprehensive policy would also include a government-mandated standardized nutrient profile model that’s based in science. And crucially, it must have measures in place to ensure compliance: robust monitoring mechanisms and rigorous enforcement with real penalties.
Can you give an example of a food marketing policy that is working well?
Chile was way ahead of the rest of the world in thinking about this problem holistically, when they implemented a 3-phase law on food labeling and advertising back in 2016.
Over subsequent phases, the nutrient thresholds for packaged foods and beverages became more stringent, as did the advertising regulations.
What Chile has done is require foods and beverages that exceed thresholds for calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium to carry a warning label on the front of the package. Products with warning labels were also subject to some marketing restrictions and could not be sold or served in schools.
Then, in the second phase, Chile introduced additional measures which prohibited advertising products with warning labels on TV and in cinemas from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.—population-wide.
And then the idea of taxing sugary drinks really came from Mexico, and dozens of countries have followed suit.
Low- and middle-income countries are absolutely leading the way here.
Any final words policymakers looking at this issue?
This is urgent. Pervasive marketing of unhealthy foods to children is going to undermine the health of populations, it’s going to undermine development, and it’s going to have serious economic costs for countries—particularly low- and middle-income countries. This is an urgent problem that governments need to start using every tool in our toolboxes to address. We can’t wait for perfect data.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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